Scene from 6am
[a]PJ Harvey[/a] plays her first gig since 1995 in out-of-the way Bridport as she limbers up for V98 (August 22&23)...
PERCHED ON a rocky coast in deepest Dorset, sleepy Bridport is Polly Harvey’s home turf. Approaching this outpost of rural Britain on humid summer nights, you half expect to encounter the voodoo sprites and feral banshees who haunt her fevered lyrics. Indeed, there are several such benighted souls in the crowd, but these turn out to be misshapen media trolls down from London. Beware the outsiders with their big-city sorcery! Burn the witches!!! Or perhaps not.
In fact, the first full PJ Harvey show since 1995 is a jolly civilised affair in front of 200 lucky locals, mostly friends and family. Despite her new King Charles spaniel frightwig, Polly looks healthy and handsome, bookending her set with euphoria and woozy sensuality. These take the form of new songs from her forthcoming long-player ‘Is This Desire?’, the first a bare-knuckled tantrum called ‘Joy’, the latter the album’s sultry title track.
Of course, even a song about joy in Polly Harvey’s hands inevitably crackles with hair-tossing spite and village idiot dementia: “[I]No hope for joy![/I]” she howls gleefully. Fresh tunes form the backbone of this show, most already sounding comfortable alongside seasoned faves. They share a new-found fascination with female names and a continued flirtation with the lo-fi electronica of her 1996 collaboration with John Parrish, ‘Dancehall At Louse Point’ – hardly surprising, since Parrish remains a multi-instrumental fixture in Polly’s band.
Steam-powered beats and scuzzy robotic basslines propel ‘My Beautiful Leah’, for instance, and the industrial serenade ‘No Girl So Sweet’. In this all-new PJ Harvey regime, guitars are no longer bludgeoning assault weapons but minimalist twangs and detuned drones. Thus ‘The Sky Lit Up’ or ‘The Garden’ are gnarly clumps of Sonic Yoof-esque churning while ‘Catherine’ and its half-spoken sister song ‘The Wind’ are muted, twinkly murder ballads. Polly hasn’t gone soft, she’s just recognised that emotional intensity doesn’t always reside in volume and violence.
But if nail-scraping dissonance is your bag, she can still yank some real unhinged bone-shakers from the archives, like the scowling hellfire sermons ‘Taut’ and ‘City Of No Sun’, or the pagan blues explosions ‘Snake’ and ‘Hook’. She even ignites a sizeable moshpit with the sabre-toothed ‘Meet Ze Monsta’ from ‘To Bring You My Love’ – all of which looks like more fun than is legally permitted at most PJ Harvey gigs. Polly knows it too, and a mile-wide smile spreads across her face.
And that’s what you take away tonight: not trauma and tension but the life-affirming, lusty lunacy which fires this primeval music. Even the encores, ‘Down By The Water’ and a powerhouse percussive remix of ’50 Foot Queenie’, arrive like loveable friends. Maybe her shows at Edinburgh and V98 will revive the skin-flaying exorcisms of old, but this hometown warm-up feels like precisely what it is: a celebration.
Afterwards, as [I]NME[/I] trundles home through dark Dorset lanes, we blithely banish all thoughts of trolls and warlocks. But we lock the car doors, just in case.